Thursday, June 2, 2011

A Brief Introduction to Bicycling in Chicago

By John Greenfield
Photos by Don Sorsa, T.C. O'Rourke and John Greenfield

[This piece also ran in Momentum Magazine,]

Chicago is a chessboard, its vast, flat grid a playing field for pedalers who plot their moves across the plane.

Though situated beside ocean-like Lake Michigan, the town’s “Windy City” nickname refers to blustery politicians, not weather. Still, winters in this municipality of nearly 3 million (9.7 million metro) are often long and brutal. Despite this, or perhaps because of the camaraderie bred by the cold, a vibrant bike culture has emerged.

The metropolis of the Midwest has a long been a cycling Mecca. By the late 1800s it boasted 54 wheelman’s clubs with over 10,000 members. In 1897 Carter H. Harrison II rode the bicycle craze to the mayor’s office with the slogan “Not the Champion Cyclist; But the Cyclist’s Champion.”

By the next year about 2/3 of U.S. bikes were manufactured within a 150-mile radius of Chicago, making it the “bicycle-building capital of America.” Schwinn, founded here in 1895 by a German immigrant, dominated the domestic market for most of the 20th Century.

Mayor Richard J. Daley, father of the current mayor, brought Chicago cycling into the modern era, designating 34 miles of routes and expanding the Lakefront Trail, which now stretches 18.5 miles along the waterfront. In 1972, the 70-year-old mayor inaugurated the city’s first bike lane on Clark Street, riding a tandem with Schwinn’s Keith Kingbay.

Advocates started the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation ( in 1985 and soon found a powerful ally in Richard M. Daley, the current “mayor-for-life.” In 1992 his Mayor’s Bike Advisory Council released the Bike 2000 Plan, a small document that has had a big impact.

The City’s new Bicycle Program, staffed largely by consultants from the bike federation and bankrolled by federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality grants, pursued the goals mandated by the bike plan. Over the next 15 years they striped more than 100 miles of bike lanes, signed hundreds of miles of routes and installed over 10,000 parking racks, more than any other U.S. city [the author managed the parking program].

The bike program published the excellent Chicago Bicycle Map and Safe Cycling in Chicago booklet, distributed free at bike shops. Outreach specialists from Safe Routes to School, After School Matters and Mayor Daley’s Bicycling Ambassadors educated multitudes about how to get around on two wheels.

Bicycles gained access to Chicago Transit Authority elevated cars and Metra commuter trains, and carrying racks were added to all buses. In 2004 a $3 million cycle center, with indoor parking for 300 bikes, showers, lockers, repair services and more, was built as part of Daley’s new downtown showpiece, Millennium Park.

The Bike 2015 Plan, released in 2006, is a weightier tome than it’s predecessor with 150 strategies to improve cycling. Recently implemented ideas include the installation of 21 miles of “shared-lane markings” on streets too narrow for bike lanes; adding short stretches of solid-green lanes at problem intersections; and a program to train taxi drivers on sharing the road.

In March, as recommended by the new plan, City Council approved Mayor Daley’s proposal to fine drivers $150 for fouls against bicyclists; $500 if the driver’s action results in a crash. The new ordinance covers five dangerous moves: opening a door on a cyclist; parking or driving in a bike lane; passing within three feet of a bike; and turning left or right into the path of a cyclist, AKA the “left hook” and “right hook.”

On a trip to Paris, Daley was impressed by the Velib automated bike rental service, credited with doubling ridership overnight. Chicago is currently negotiating with JCDecaux to bring the system to the city’s central business district, the Loop. Although the contract would provide 1,000 bikes rather than Paris’ 20,000, the rental service would be among the first in North America.

Daley is also considering Sunday Parkways, a Latin American-style ciclovía in which a network of streets would be closed to driving and opened to bicycling and other forms of non-motorized play. The bike federation has raised much of the $400,000 needed to run three to five trials on a 7.5-mile route along the city’s historic boulevard system, mostly through low-income areas. Churches and neighborhood groups have embraced the proposal as a way to promote fitness in their communities. Pending final approval from the Mayor’s Office it’s likely to kick off this summer.

Recently, the City agreed to convert the Bloomingdale Line, a 3-mile long abandoned elevated railway on the Northwest Side, into an above-ground “linear park.” The project, championed by Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail ( requires rebuilding several viaducts and will take years to complete, but the rugged rail bed is already a favorite with “urban assault” riders.

Aside from the bike federation and the bike program, a number of grassroots organizations push pedaling in Chicago. Bike Winter ( promotes all-season cycling with how-to workshops; a Winter Bike to Work Day breakfast; a bicycle-themed art show; spontaneous Snow Rides and more.

Other groups focus on particular demographics. Cycling Sisters ( strives to narrow the gender gap among local cyclists with women-only repair classes, recreational rides and get-togethers.

The Major Taylor Bike Society (, named for the Black racing legend, raises awareness of bike issues and events in Chicago’s South Side and African-American communities.

Chicago Cruisers is a family-oriented club from Humboldt Park, the city’s Puerto Rican neighborhood. Dozens of members on classic Schwinns and low-rider bikes ride in procession each Sunday to a soundtrack of merengue and salsa.

Community bicycle centers are spread across the city. West Town Bikes ( in Humboldt Park runs earn-a-bike programs and safe cycling classes for at-risk youth. Adults can attend Tinker Town Tuesday open shop nights and mechanics classes like Build Your Own Bike.

Blackstone Bicycle Works (, located in the South Side’s Woodlawn community, operates from a multi-use space that houses several environmental and artistic endeavors. The shop runs maintenance classes for neighborhood kids and offers used bikes, accessories and repairs at a discount to low-income residents.

Volunteers from Working Bikes Cooperative ( salvage old cycles from basements and scrap yards and refurbish them in a jam-packed West Side warehouse. They sell the road bikes and cruisers at a nearby storefront; proceeds are used to ship containers of mountain bikes, spare parts and other items to sister organizations in Africa and Latin America.

Chicagoans are also served by a variety of for-profit shops; the Chicago Bike Shop Database ( is a detailed directory. Commuters should check out Uptown Bikes; Boulevard Bikes ( in Logan Square; and Wicker Park’s Rapid Transit (http://www.rapidtransitcycles/), which specializes in city bikes, folders, recumbents and trailers.

Track enthusiasts will want to visit Yojimbo’s Garage (, located in a former church near the Cabrini Green housing project. Proprietor Marcus Moore is the go-to mechanic for messengers and the fashionable fixed-gear set. Yojimbo’s is also home to XXX Racing (, a team founded by couriers that now has over 100 members from all walks of life.

Hyde Park’s Tati Cycles ( is another unique shop that will appeal to fixie fans. Crammed into a tiny basement, the store has an old-fashioned aesthetic favoring lugged steel frames, lacquered bar tape, leather saddles and wool clothing. Owner Jay Han serves tea daily at 3 pm and loves to chat about cycling history.

Currently, Bike Chicago ( is the most convenient outlet for rentals, available year-round at Millennium Park’s unfortunately-named McDonald’s Cycle Center and at several lakefront locations during summer months.

Visitors who want to meet some of Chicago’s 300-plus bike couriers can go to the cylindrical Jim Thompson Center, nicknamed the “Tom Tom,” 100 W. Randolph St., where messengers standby. After work they can be found at Cal’s Liquors (, a South Loop dive that stages punk shows.

Wicker Park’s Handlebar ( hosts Messengers Mondays with drink specials and free fries for couriers. Riders from the Critical Mass bike parade opened this mostly-vegetarian bar and grill with bike racks in the beer garden and barstools made of old rims and inner tubes.

Until recently messenger-style “alleycat” races were common, but following the death of a rider during the Tour da Chicago series in March there seems to be a moratorium. Members of the Chicago Couriers Union are bringing this year’s North American Cycle Courier Championships ( to town as a sanctioned, closed-course event in Garfield Park on Labor Day Weekend.

Out-of-towners will definitely want to take a spin on the Lakefront Trail for breathtaking views of the lake and skyline. In summer the path gets congested and hectic on the North Side, so it’s best to pedal south from the Loop for a serene or speedy ride.

Almost as scenic is the North Branch Trail which traces the Chicago River for 18 miles from the Northwest Side through suburban forest preserves, ending at the Chicago Botanic Garden. After completing the round trip it’s de rigueur to dine across the street from the trailhead at Superdawg, a 1948 drive-in topped by winking fiberglass wieners.

As for large group rides, Chicago’s huge, friendly Critical Mass ( is a must. The parade assembles on the last Friday of every month under the giant Picasso sculpture in (of course) Daley Plaza, drawing up to 4,000 participants in the summer.

There was a minor debacle last fall in conjunction with the 10th anniversary of the Daley Plaza rides. A few long-time massers decided that Critical Mass had gotten too big for its britches and issued a press release deadpanning that the September ride would be the “Grand Finale.” The Chicago Sun Times reported this as fact.

Needless to say, the ride is still going strong but a byproduct of the Grand Finale fiasco was the rise of small, community bike parades. Most of these “mini masses” take place on the first Friday of the month, in Wicker Park, Pilsen, Hyde Park and the suburbs of Evanston and Oak Park.

Apparently the bike federation was inspired by Critical Mass’ frequent forays onto Lake Shore Drive, the 8-lane expressway which separates the city from its beaches, as well as the visionary “Depave LSD” campaign ( A few years ago the federation launched Bike the Drive ( an annual event where 15 miles of the superhighway are closed to motor traffic, drawing 20,000-plus cyclists. The result - fresh air, tranquility and a lakefront filled with people rather than steel boxes - offers a preview of what Chicago could be like in the future with less cars and more bikes.


Alex Wilson, an early booster of Chicago Critical Mass, edited the CM zine The Derailleur and made thousands of t-shirts, flags, stickers and other schwag items to distribute free at the ride. He now runs West Town Bikes.

Why is Chicago a great city for biking?

Chicago is poised to become the most bike-friendly, major North America city in terms of utilitarian transportation. It’s easy to ride here because the city’s flat and it’s on a grid. There’s a pretty supportive city government and a very supportive bike community. My own opportunities to improve biking make Chicago a great city for me.

What are the challenges of riding a bike in Chicago?

The biggest problem is there’s too many cars – they’re a huge threat. When people drive inconsiderately they endanger the health and well-being of cyclists and pedestrians. I think most motorists don’t really understand this.

How would you improve cycling here?

If I could wave a magic wand and change things I would get people out of their cars and onto bikes. When you take cars out of the equation things are so much more civilized. Bicycling or walking is friendly and non-threatening and you’re able to take in your environment.

What rides would you recommend to visitors?

They should definitely go on Critical Mass - that’s a fantastic, fun time and you’ll usually get a great tour of the city. For recreational rides after work or on weekends you could meet up with the Chicago Cycling Club ( If you want a more adventurous experience, the Midnight Marauders ( do kind of an urban mountain biking ride. Whatever your niche of riding is, you can find it in Chicago.


“Chopper” Carl Harris is a bicycle courier and church organist. As his nickname suggests, he “chops” his own freak bikes and rolls with the Rat Patrol bike gang ( He’s also a Critical Mass regular, towing a sound system blasting R & B and funk.

How did you get involved in bicycling?

I always rode bikes but when met other people who love bikes the way I do, that made me more energetic. I found out when I was younger that you can use a bike to leave your neighborhood and see new things, so bikes were like my automobile.

What’s the hardest thing about riding a bike in Chicago?

The motorists, for one thing, and certain neighborhoods. The motorists, they’re in a bigger vehicle, they go faster and they think that you’re in their way. The neighborhoods you go in, depending on your ethnicity, people are gonna pick on you, bother you, whatever. Knock on wood, I haven’t had any problems.

What would you do improve biking here?

I would build more greenways that connect to each other. All the abandoned railroad lines go downtown, so it would be nice if we could build some more bike paths on them.

What bike rides or hangouts would you recommend to out-of-towners?

It depends on your style of biking. I like to ride on the lakefront – it’s peaceful and quiet. If you’re a messenger I would go to the Tom Tom. If you’re a commuter or bike activist, go to West Town. If you’re into freak bikes, the Rat Patrol is hard to track down ‘cause they don’t do nothin’ on time.

Chicagoland Bicycle Federation’s site featuring news on local bike issues and events plus links to cycling resources.
Info about the City of Chicago’s bike initiatives and the interactive Chicago Bike Map.
Tips on riding in challenging weather and an events calendar loaded with fun all-season bike events.
Practical ideas for female riders and an on-line forum that discusses ways to get more women on bikes.
An advice column by Chicago’s Dave “Mr. Bike” Glowacz, author of the commuter’s bible: Urban Bikers’ Tips and Tricks.
A shadowy cabal of messenger-racers holds court on the local and national alleycat, cyclocross, road and track scenes.
Documents strange human-powered vehicles on the streets of Chicago: choppers, tallbikes, cargo bikes and weirder creations.


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